WILLIAMS, JOHN, Puritan minister and onetime Indian captive; b. 10 Dec. 1664 (o.s.) at Roxbury, Mass., son of Samuel and Theoda (Park) Williams and grandson of Robert Williams, who migrated from Norwich, England, in 1638 to Massachusetts Bay; d. 12 June 1729 at Deerfield, Mass.
John Williams attended Roxbury Latin School and graduated from Harvard College in 1683. He taught school for two years in Dorchester and studied divinity. In March 1686 he was selected as preacher at Deerfield, and was ordained as the town’s first minister in October 1688. He married Eunice Mather, daughter of the Reverend Eleazar Mather of Northampton, on 21 July 1687; they had nine children, two dying in infancy.
Deerfield had been burned by Indians and deserted in King Philip’s War (1675–76), and during King William’s War (War of the League of Augsburg) the town was attacked almost annually by French and Indians. After the start of Queen Anne’s War (War of the Spanish Succession), Williams persuaded Governor Dudley to post 20 soldiers there. Nevertheless, before dawn on 29 Feb. 1703/4 (11 March 1704, n.s.), a force of 200 French and 142 Abenakis and Caughnawaga-Mohawks (also reported as 50 French and 200 Indians) under Major Jean-Baptiste Hertel de Rouville silently approached the sleeping town. With snow piled high against the stockades, they entered the town easily, and began their attack. According to one estimate they killed 47 inhabitants and took 112 prisoners, about one-third of the population; 17 houses went up in flames. Breaking into Williams’ house, the enemy killed two of his sons, one a six-week-old infant, and their Negro nurse, and took the family prisoners. In the harsh trek northward to Montreal 18 prisoners, including Mrs Williams, were killed. Williams, his sons, and daughters were parcelled out among Indian and French families and held for ransom. Governor Rigaud de Vaudreuil redeemed Williams and tried to procure the release of his children. For a time Williams was kept at Quebec, where a serious effort was made to convert him to Roman Catholicism. By October 1706 all of his children except Eunice* had been freed, and he sailed to Boston with 54 other released captives. Pierre Maisonnat, dit Baptiste, was one of the French prisoners released by New England at the same time.
Williams returned to Deerfield as minister and wrote a narrative of the Deerfield attack and of his experience in Canada, which was published at Boston in 1707 as The redeemed captive, returning to Zion. . . . According to Sibley, he was appointed chaplain to the abortive New England expedition against Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal, N.S.) in 1707, and to the local troops serving in Admiral Walker’s expedition to Quebec in 1711. At the end of the war in November 1713, Williams and Major John Stoddard were sent to Canada by Massachusetts to ransom more captives, but had only partial success in their negotiations with Vaudreuil. Although the two commissioners stayed in Montreal and Quebec until the end of August 1714, they recovered only 26 captives.
Williams took as his second wife Abigail Bissell, daughter of Captain Thomas Allen of Windsor, Conn., in September 1707. She was a cousin of his first wife and had five children by him. Williams continued his ministry at Deerfield until his death 12 June 1729, after a stroke of apoplexy three days earlier. Three of his sons by his first wife became ministers.
The primary source for Williams’ capture and captivity at Quebec is his own narrative, cited above, The redeemed captive returning to Zion: or, a faithful history of remarkable occurrences in the captivity and deliverance of Mr. John Williams . . . (1st ed., Boston, 1707; 6th ed., Boston, 1795, repr. in Springfield, Mass., 1908); only eight copies of the first edition are known today. Some of Williams’ letters are in the Massachusetts Historical Society library. A journal of the negotiations between Stoddard, Williams, and Vaudreuil can be found in the Houghton library, Harvard Univ., MS Am 1201.
DAB. J. L. Sibley, Biographical sketches of graduates of Harvard University . . . , (3v., Cambridge, Mass., 1873–85), III, 249–62. Coleman, New England captives. Parkman, A half-century of conflict (1893), I. S. W. Williams, A biographical memoir of the Rev. John Williams, first minister of Deerfield, Mass, (Greenfield, Mass.. 1837).